Practicing Social Activism


.Joan chose four key events and issues to highlight her work, events that illustrate her advocacy principles and strategic approach to action.

On the first occasion in the mid-1980s, when she was a parish assistant, members of a United Church and the Catholic Church wanted the Bedford Town Council to release some land for building much-needed affordable housing. Angered when the Council rescinded its motion to release the land, Joan, who knew families needing this kind of housing, worked with other protesters to press the Council to explain their position on affordable housing to the media. When the media asked what the problem was, Joan responded, that some people make negative judgments about families who live in poverty rather than respecting them as good people who want a nice home for their families. "That's what I'm working for," she said. After a doggedly persistent education campaign, and the gradual acceptance by citizens of the concept of affordable housing in their neighbourhood, Joan and her team won the day.

Solidarity with staff

The second issue related to the sudden laying off of some staff at the local Community Centre. Not only did Joan need the Centre working at maximum speed to advance her own work, but its administrative staff worked collaboratively with other agencies to ensure efficient delivery of services, notably to single parents.

Joan decided to walk out of the building with staffers who were under threat as a sign of solidarity and moral support. She worked with others to call a meeting of professionals, volunteers, and clients of the Community Centre and demand reinstatement of the affected staff. They went twice to City Council when at first even their own councillor was against them.

Joan recalled the careful preparations that covered every possible angle to make their case. Letters to those in power were hand-delivered to head off claims of non-delivery; staff listened to as they explained their workloads and successes in detail. Many citizens came out to attend the Council meetings and demonstrate their protest. Joan advised those who were intimidated by the proceedings, "Come and look intelligent, don't look like you're scared." Years earlier, she had learned a valuable strategy while fighting for an outreach centre from a woman activist who advised, "None of the councillors know you, so each one thinks you are from their area and they will be swayed by who takes a real interest."

Ultimately, Joan and her colleagues won this battle to keep staff needed to deliver necessary services:

I think people had the courage to come forward and explain why we needed these people and the good they had done in the community. Also, people were prepared to say that there was a mistake made in how the situation was handled. In the second Council meeting, our councillor said, "Maybe we are going about this the wrong way."

Health Canada's funding cuts

The third issue chosen was Health Canada's decision in the mid-1990s to cut funding in half to several key social agencies that operated interdependently to provide support and education to families with young children. Joan's agency, Home of the Guardian Angel and Single Parent Services, delivered support through a part-time worker supported by a budget for child-care and travel.

Action needed to be planned quickly due to the speed of budget processes in Ottawa. Joan and her activism colleagues determined to act together as an integrated protest group rather than scatter their energies in individual protests. Parents and staff decided to "send their children to Ottawa," and educated on the ethics of this approach, created large silhouettes of children bearing authentic messages, such as, "This gives my child a safe place to come… I took pre-natal classes here and I had a healthier birth… The staff person helped me through a difficult time, I would hate to see her go."

Every "child" was then folded up and posted to Ottawa. The Minister of Health and officials were faxed repeatedly with success stories and arguments against the proposed cuts. After all this intense work, they achieved success and the cuts were not made.

Anti-poverty march

The fourth event that Joan chose to highlight was the 2001 anti-poverty march and demonstration in front of the Premier's office in Halifax. The provincial government had made changes to the welfare system that severely curtailed access to financial support, causing great worry about the impact on poverty levels in the city. The Community Advocates network invited Joan to play the part of the Grim Reaper and head a mock funeral procession from Spring Garden Road to Province House.

On the day itself, Joan walked at the head of a long procession, slowly and wordlessly to the beat of a single drummer, to deliver a letter to the Premier and ask for a meeting. In order to maximize the impact, she had agreed to stay in role:

A couple of people came up to me and asked me who I was. I didn't speak and the person with me never said who I was. I could hear three people from the Single Parent Centre where I worked say, "That Joan! Telling us to come here, and she's not even here herself!" I never reacted.

Bystanders and media were made aware of the issue with well-researched placards and copies of the press release they had released. The "funeral" received considerable public attention, even after the event, and although the Premier refused to see them that day, their letter was received and they did get their meeting with the Minister of Community Services. There followed a meeting between the Minister and staff at the Community Services Office, and Joan noted that there were some workers who immediately became more conscientious in how they requisitioned funds for those in need.

In addition to the efforts described here, Joan has provided written support to colleagues who lobbied for changes in proposed legislation. As a known public figure in Halifax, she considers it her responsibility to support actions for justice, especially when they concern poverty and violence.

Current activities

Since Joan finished her work at the Motherhouse, she has become a full-time volunteer, participating in events like Tent City and supporting Out of the Cold Shelter. She continues as volunteer secretary of the Ward 5 Neighbourhood Centre and chairs the School Advisory Council at Chebucto Heights School. Occasionally, she facilitates sessions on justice issues using the Systemic Change strategies developed by the Vincentian Family, which includes the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, Congregation of the Mission, and the Sisters of Charity Federation—a model that addresses justice work while continuing some works of charity. All her volunteer positions provide the opportunity to live out her guiding principles of charity and justice.

In 2009, Joan trained as a volunteer doula to support birthing women, at the Single Parent Centre, a program developed when she worked at the Centre 15 years ago.

Doula is a Greek word meaning the woman whose primary concern is the mother of the family, especially during pregnancy, birthing and postpartum. We wanted a peer-volunteer doula program and money to staff it and pay for childcare and travel because we wanted mothers who lived in poverty to be able to take this training and be doula themselves, and it happened. We learned later that some wanted older women — so that's how I'm getting in on it.

Being a doula is now a priority for Joan, who feels it is a privilege. She has served twelve women in this capacity and each mother and child energizes her.

Joan has also collaborated with activists across Nova Scotia and helped with the Community Advocates Network based in Halifax. This group addresses the justice of the current economic support systems and whether they provide income support, preparation for work, or education. Too often, she says, these systems are unjustly implemented:

Some workers [in government offices] don't always tell people that there is a fund for people with a special diet or school supplies, those kinds of things. We have a systemic justice issue that affects lots of people.

Feeling that women must talk to other women, Joan has also spoken at the theatre event, "The Vagina Monologues," much to the chagrin of others, at times. "That's one way we raise issues around violence and discrimination and help address the system," she says.

Charity is like a 'feel good'—if I help somebody, it's concrete; it gives me a warm feeling. Justice is the hard work. To ask: 'How did this happen? What system needs to be addressed, how can we help people in the long run who might meet this obstacle?' When we work for justice, we work for things to be as fair as possible. You never stop doing a charity but you work at making the situation just.